Gensler Reinforces Knoll’s Design Philosophy at New Chicago Flagship
In the past decade, the Fulton-Randolph Market District has evolved into one of Chicago’s most thriving neighborhoods. Formerly industrial, inhabited by meat-packing companies and warehouses, Fulton Market, as locals call it, is now populated by converted loft apartments as well as new upscale residential towers, restaurants, and boutique hotels. The buzz caught the attention of executives at Knoll, who, earlier this year, decided to move the furniture company’s local showroom from its longtime home in the Merchandise Mart to an expansive 24,000-square-foot space in Fulton Market. “It has a vitality and youthfulness,” Knoll executive vice president of design Benjamin Pardo says of the area. “We wanted to be in the thick of things.”
The neighborhood’s raw yet refined character is what inspired Gensler’s concept for Knoll’s new flagship, which occupies the three top floors of a ground-up seven-story brick building by Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture. Large iron windows frame nearly 360-degree views of the city’s iconic skyscrapers, and, hanging in two of them, neon signs in Knoll’s signature red are like beacons to passersby. “The idea was that the showroom reflects Chicago, its grit and its grace,” Gensler principal and co-managing director Todd Heiser begins. And, of course, showcase the company’s staggering catalog of mid- and 21st-century furnishings by the likes of Anni Albers, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, David Rockwell, Dorothy Cosonas, and Antenna Design.
“The architecture is rooted in classic modernism,” Heiser continues. “It grounds you in this company that has tremendous history,” Gensler principal and senior project director Helen Hopton adds. They are referring to the main level housing the atrium—created from a cutout between the sixth and seventh levels, capped by an enormous skylight—and a generous lounge. The two areas are separated from each other by a double-height screen of steel rods that nods to Bertoia’s welded-metal sculptures from the ’60s and ’70s. Short tubes of oil-rubbed bronze are strategically strung onto the rods to spell out the company name. Industrial concrete flooring flows beneath. “Our concept of raw and refined aligns the iconic brand to the polished grit of the neighborhood, embracing the beauty of craft and attention to detail,” Heiser says.
Refined details come in the form of luxe materials. The wall of the elevator lobby, for example, is covered in a deep red Vino Cavallini hair on hide, which coordinates with the veiny book-matched burgundy Rosso Rubino marble on the adjacent walls and custom merlot sheers throughout. A pair of suspended TVs looping the company history hang nearby from braided silk cords. A few steps away, a honed Verde Alpi-topped bar with a barrel-tufted base upholstered in steely-gray leather and a mirrored backsplash could be found in the lobby of a swanky hotel. “It’s like a prismatic box that reflects everything around it,” Hopton notes.
In the lounge, pieces from the company’s myriad collections easily commingle. In one zone, a pair of high-back red sofas by Rockwell face a low-slung teal bench surrounded by small cubes, upholstered stools, and large round ottomans covered in a complementary array of KnollTextiles patterned fabrics in vibrant colors. “Chicago is a city of extremes, and we should not be timid,” Heiser states. “In the middle of winter, the last thing you want is a bunch of neutrals.” Along one side, a series of phone booths offer privacy, and there are conference tables throughout. “All the areas support the notion of choice and mobility,” Hopton explains.
While the main level strikes a serious, albeit colorful, tone befitting Knoll’s rich history, the other floors are more freewheeling. Upstairs off the elevators, a playful mural in lavenders and greens is an abstract representation of company milestones, such as the origin dates of the Barcelona and Tulip collections. Farther in, a steel-framed glass railing with an integrated book ledge, a wrapped leather inset, and a velvet handrail overlooks the atrium below. “Mies said that God is in the details, and as you look around this space, the details are exuberant,” Heiser says.
The level downstairs from the main floor is devoted to furniture and accessories from Knoll’s 2018 acquisition, Muuto. Pale Douglas fir paneling and a pastel color palette honor the Danish brand’s Scandinavian roots while demonstrating that the pieces coordinate seamlessly with the classic designs of the American company. “Gensler played up the characteristics of the floors in such a way that they express the brand historically, in a contemporary fashion, and where it’s going,” Pardo states. “That’s not easy to achieve.” Soon celebrating its one-year anniversary, the showroom is functioning just as the Knoll and Gensler teams had envisioned, drawing in clients old and new and acting as a communal space for local architects and designers, who often pop in to work or eat their lunch. “I have such love for Bertoia, Mies, and the legacy of Knoll,” Heiser says. “To design the place that all that product fits into, and to have the design community feel as if they’re a part of that place, is humbling and amazing.” Ideally, Pardo notes, those visitors will seek to recreate the same vibe in their own spaces.
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Project Team: Robin Klehr Avia;
Jessica Gracey; Riley King; John Bricker; Paul Hagle; Elizabeth Fallon; Mallory Taub; Kamila Edwards; Sue Harrington; Stephen Katz; Michael Shaub; Carli Papp; Sabrina Mason; Andrea Planter; Eric Shelton; Kaley Blackstock; David Briefel: Gensler. Focus Lighting: Lighting Consultant. CE Anderson & Associates: Structural Engineer. WMA Consulting Engineers: MEP. Landmark Signs: Custom Signage. Parenti & Raffaelli: Millwork. Conopco: Project Management. Clune Construction: General Contractor.
Product Sources: Tretford: Carpet (Lounge). Flos: Linear Pendant Fixtures. Throughout: Knoll; Muuto: Furniture. KnollTextiles: Fabric. Edelman Leather; Spinneybeck: Leather. Super Sky Products Enterprises: Custom Skylights. Sherwin-Williams Company: Paint.